Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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With an affordable housing crisis on their hands, District officials have in recent months grappled with how to alleviate pressure on D.C.’s overstretched—and remarkably expensive—emergency shelter system for homeless families.

But the local government’s efforts have caught heavy flak from advocates and even some within its own ranks. Such criticism spiked this week with the D.C. Council’s contentious, final approval of far-reaching changes to the District’s homeless services, and a new report by the D.C. Inspector General that found significant risks in the District’s administration of two family shelters.

On Tuesday, a supermajority of the Council again voted to make the requirements for accessing family shelters more stringent. Their decision gives the executive branch greater authority to redetermine eligibility for services after a family has entered the system, and it formalizes problematic time-limits in rental assistance for families leaving shelters, called rapid rehousing.

Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed the legislation in May, and a committee chaired by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau guided the bill to passage. It represents the first time that the District has updated its homeless services wholesale in more than a decade, and is poised for implementation next year.

“We know that in a city as prosperous as ours, no resident should struggle to access safe shelter,” Bowser said in a statement following the vote, which she called “a bold step forward to making homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring.” 

The mayor and sympathetic councilmembers argued that the changes will ensure family shelters serve D.C. residents instead of people who migrate here knowing the District is one of few jurisdictions that has a right-to-shelter law during hypothermia conditions. The Department of Human Services noted that over a recent six-month period, one in 10 emergency shelter applicants were not D.C. residents because they had active benefits in other states.

The legislation’s backers also said shelters should be used to help families in crisis who don’t have a safe place to live. They said shelters cannot sustainably warehouse families searching for permanent affordable units who have other options. 

Nadeau, who, like Bowser, is up for reelection in 2018, points out that the Council made various amendments to the original proposal and addressed advocates’ concerns. “We cannot break the cycle we are in if we do not update the law,” she says, adding, “there is still much work to do.”

But many advocates remain worried that these policies will screen out vulnerable families from shelter and cut the District’s safety net. They take umbrage, too, at the fact that elected officials justified their actions by citing expenses incurred by the shelter system while at the same time voting to grant an $82 million subsidy to Union Market developers, in part to help build parking.

In a split decision, councilmembers also shot down a measure by Ward 8’s Trayon White to expand the standard period for D.C.’s rapid rehousing program from 12 to 18 months, when families do not receive proper case management and are not assessed for longer-term housing. Critics say the program sets up low-income families to fail once their rental vouchers expire.

White’s measure would have cost an estimated $8.9 million over four years. “The homeless shelter system, while it relates to affordable housing, is not an affordable housing system,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said in opposing the amendment. Nadeau said the expected cost could fund permanent housing subsidies instead, and that she will hold a hearing on rapid rehousing this month.

D.C.’s emergency shelter system accommodated more than 650 families, or over 2,300 people, through the first five days of December, when temperatures were above freezing, according to data obtained by City Paper. Approximately 60 percent of these clients were children.

Just over 230 families were staying at the former D.C. General Hospital at 1900 Massachusetts Ave. SE, which serves as the District’s largest family homeless shelter and is usually at capacity. About 420 others were staying at several hotels with which the District contracts to use as overflow shelters.

On a nightly basis, individual hotel rooms for homeless families can cost taxpayers between $90 and $200, depending on the season and demand. The District spent almost $28 million on those rooms, or around $80,000 per day, last fiscal year. It plans to rely on fewer hotels in the future by investing in homelessness-prevention programs and affordable housing, DHS says.

Nonetheless, an independent evaluation of the two biggest hotel contracts released on Monday by D.C. Inspector General Daniel Lucas reported that the District lacks robust oversight of these hotels and its main homeless services provider, The Community Partnership. TCP provides security, curfew checks, and case management, among other services, at the hotels and D.C. General.

The contracts, which totaled $10.57 million for 2016, supply the District with more than 300 rooms at the Quality Inn and Suites and the Days Inn Gateway, both on New York Avenue NE. This base amount could stretch to more than $54 million over four option years, and doesn’t account for three other hotels that D.C. contracts with to provide overflow shelter.

“The hotels may not be complying with contract terms intended to protect and support homeless families, and the District could be paying for contractually required accommodations and services that the hotels are not providing,” Lucas wrote. The contract terms include functioning appliances like refrigerators and microwaves in rooms, designated dining areas, pest control, daily breakfast, and regularly replenished toiletries, sheets, and towels.

OIG based its report on contract documents as well as additional information and interviews from DHS employees. Many of the office’s findings revolve around the somewhat blurry role of TCP.

“DHS’s contract administration and oversight is limited to a review of room occupancy information provided by TCP and the hotels, and contractor invoices; however, there is no indication that DHS is monitoring the condition of the hotels,” the OIG report states.

TCP has multimillion-dollar contracts with the District, and has partnered with D.C. since 1994. The group came under scrutiny after the 2014 disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd from D.C. General and a 2015 audit by the D.C. Auditor that found the District had overpaid TCP by more than $5 million due to unusual billing practices.

A 2016 audit, also by the D.C. Auditor, found similar oversight issues related to TCP (though under a previous management contract), including unenforced deliverables and payments made before performance was verified. Sue Marshall, TCP’s executive director, declined to comment.

DHS says the issues highlighted in the report have been resolved, and between TCP and DHS staff who visit the shelters, homeless clients are well cared for. “The two hotel operators have consistently complied with contract requirements and are very responsive to any issues that arise,” the department’s chief operating officer, Sharon Kershbaum, says in a statement. 

“The OIG report identifies potential risk exposures but does not show any instance in which either hotel operator failed to provide what they were contractually obligated to deliver,” she continues. “There were no deficiencies concerning contractor performance identified or any mention of complaints from the residents staying at the hotels.”

But given the changes to homeless services that the Council approved, there could be fewer residents living in shelters, period. 

“I think we all need to be prepared to make sure the councilmembers and the mayor honestly put their money where their mouth is with this next budget cycle and fund more affordable housing,” says Amber Harding, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which challenged many of the reforms. “We’re not going to go away.”